My contribution to It Happened One Weekend is SECOND SHOT, a novella set in The Anti-Cinderella World Romances. The main character is Liesel Duncan, younger sister of Kyra, the actual Anti-Cinderella, and it’s a second chance romance between her and a sexy baseball player who’s playing in the championship series.
I stopped more out of instinct than intent. We’re all trained to look up and pay attention when someone calls our name, aren’t we? I wished I had ignored him and swept out, but I didn’t. In fact, I not only stopped, but I found myself turning around to face him.
“What do you want, Carter?”
He slowed his pedaling and rested his wrists on the handlebars. “Were you seriously going to leave without even acknowledging that I was here?”
I paused, considered, and nodded. “Yes. Yes, I was.”
He exhaled long, dropping his head and rubbing his neck. “I can’t believe that we’ve come to this. We’ve known each other our whole lives, Liesel. We were together—a couple—for almost nine years. And now you just pretend you don’t know me? Is that how it’s supposed to work?”
I squared my shoulders. “I think the point is that it doesn’t work, Carter. We didn’t work. So . . .” I shrugged. “Yeah. That’s how it is. I don’t have anything to say to you, and I assume you don’t have anything to say to me, either.”
“Why would you assume that?” He scowled at me, his brow furrowed.
“Oh, I don’t know. I guess because it’s been four years, and I haven’t heard a word from you. No calls, no texts, no emails. When that happens, I try to accept that the other person doesn’t want to communicate. Call me crazy.”
“Well, you are,” he snapped back, and then at my expression of confusion, he added, “Crazy. You’re nuts, Liesel. Why the hell would I call or text or email you when the last time we were together, you told me you never wanted to see me or hear from me again?”
I blinked. “I was angry.”
“You think?” Carter rolled his eyes. “We were both angry, and for good reason. But we weren’t the couple who ends because we’re pissed off. We were the couple who worked out our shit. Or at least we were until the night you threw me out and told me we were over.”
“That’s not how it happened,” I protested, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, even though I harbored an uneasy feeling that perhaps Carter recalled that night with more clarity than I did. “We had been growing apart for months. You were on the road constantly, and even when you were home, you were so absorbed in the game, or at practice, or conditioning, or hanging out with your teammates . . . there wasn’t any room for me in your life anymore.” I paused. “Not to mention what was happening when you were at away games. The way the women threw themselves at you, the pictures and the posts—I couldn’t take it.”
“We hadn’t been growing apart,” Carter argued. “You were living in a constant state of stress and unhappiness because you hated the work you were doing.”
My mouth dropped. “That’s not true.”
“Oh, yes, it is,” he returned. “It’s a hundred percent accurate. And you got all pissy with me because I pointed out that you’d taken the job with your family’s company against your better judgement. You never wanted to work in a corporate setting, Liesel. You’re an artist. You were meant for a wild, unfettered existence.”
I bit down on my lower lip, battling against the tears that were threatening, because oh, God, Carter was dancing on tender feelings that were still too sensitive for me to face. His words forced me to remember how frustrated and miserable I’d been in those first few years after college . . . and reminded me that I wasn’t all that thrilled with my day-to-day work even now.
Still, I wasn’t going to let him get away with totally blaming our break-up on me.I drew in a deep breath. “That’s beside the point, Carter. If I was unhappy in those days, it wasn’t because of my job choice—not completely, anyway,” I amended as I saw he was about to open his mouth to argue more. “I hated the baseball life. We barely saw each other, between your schedule and mine, and when we did get together, we ended up bickering.”
His eyes darkened slightly. “Some of that bickering ended up in bed, if I remember.”
I chose to ignore that jibe, even if it was one hundred percent accurate and sent all the feels to my lady bits. “You hated how insecure I was about what went on when I wasn’t around. And I hated being that woman, the one who felt like she couldn’t trust her partner when he was out of her sight.”
“Your insecurity had nothing to do with me or anything I did,” he countered. “It was because you were stuck in a job you didn’t want to do, and you were doing it because you have an unhealthy and irrational fear of disappointing your family.”
“I do not!” My hands curled into fists. “Just because I love my parents and my grandparents doesn’t make me co-dependent on them. It doesn’t mean my relationship with my family is dysfunctional.”
“I never said it did.” Carter’s voice softened. “I said your fear of disappointing them was dysfunctional, mostly because I never saw any reason for it. In my experience with Handsome, Honey, and your parents, they never once said or did anything that was meant to make you feel anything but loved and cherished. They were so proud of your art, of your passion for design. Just like I was.” He sighed, his shoulders slumping. “Your grandmother Honey only mentioned the job at Honey Bee to you after graduation in case you were anxious about supporting yourself. She specifically said that she understood if you wanted to pursue your dreams on your own terms. I was sitting right next to you when she said it.”
A twinge of familiar guilt and resentment hit my gut. “She offered me the job. Honey Bee is our family company. It’s important to all of us that it continues to grow and thrive.”
“True.” Carter nodded. “But it wasn’t as if the business was in danger of going under or anything like that. Your parents are both helping to run Honey Bee. Kyra and Bria are involved, too. You could’ve easily gone your own way.” He waited a beat. “But you know, Liesel, I’ve had a long time to mull this over, and I think a big part of why you took a job you didn’t want is that you didn’t want to be left out. You didn’t want to be the only Duncan who didn’t work for Honey Bee.”
“No.” I shook my head. “You’re choosing to believe what’s convenient for you, what supports this crazy theory of yours. But it was so much more than that. Kyra was still settling into her role as part of the Royal Family, and she was pregnant with Alice. We knew that was going to impact how much time and energy she could devote to Honey Bee. Plus, Ky’s always been more interested in the sourcing side of the company—she’s happier with her hands in the dirt, trying to make the growing processes better and more organic.”
“Just like you’re happier when you have a sketch pencil in your hand and a pad of paper on your knees.” Carter frowned a bit, his lips pursing. “Or maybe not so much anymore. Because I have to say, Liesel, I’m a little confused about what you’re doing here this weekend. When I saw you yesterday, you were checking in for a writers’ meeting, weren’t you? What gives there?”
I tensed. “None of your damned business.”
“Uh-huh.” Carter crossed his arms, and I did my level best to ignore the way it made the muscles in his biceps bunch. He really had only gotten hotter in the past four years. Dang him. With no small difficulty, I dragged my attention back to what he was saying. “I heard one of the other women call you by a different name. Amelia? Was that it?”
I raised one brow. “I say again, none of your business, Carter. What I do, how I do it, when I do it, is no longer your concern. I don’t need your opinion or your judgement.”
“No one’s judging, babe. Or at least, not me. I never did. I only ever wanted you to have what you wanted. I wanted you to be who you wanted to be.”
I huffed out a sigh. “Bullshit. You hated my job at Honey Bee because it got in the way of me being that perfect baseball girlfriend. I didn’t have time to sit in the bleachers in tight jeans and a low-cut shirt with your name on it, my nails done and my makeup perfect. That’s why you tried to convince me to give up my job.”
Carter shook his head. “That’s not the way it was, Liesel.” He sounded weary. “I never asked you to be anyone other than who you are. If the job at Honey Bee fulfilled you, I would’ve been your biggest champion.”
“And this—” I jabbed my finger downward. “This right here is why I was trying to leave without saying anything to you. Because we’re back to talking in circles, just like we were four years ago. You’re like a dog with a bone when it comes to my job, and you won’t take any responsibility for what else was going on between us.” I stood silent for a moment, my entire body tight with coiled frustration. “If you must know, if it’ll make you leave me alone, I’ll tell you—yes, I’m here this weekend for the Romance Author Conference. I started writing a couple of years ago, but I do it under a pseudonym because—because—” I pressed one hand to my chest. “This is mine. It’s only for me. It’s the part of my life that I don’t have to share or explain to anyone.”
“Okay. I get that.” Carter’s tone softened. “It’s the artist in you, just coming out in a new and different way.”
“Whatever.” I tossed my hands in irritated surrender. I didn’t have time to argue with him any longer. “If you want to out me back at home in Philadelphia, if you want to shout it from the proverbial rooftops that I’m writing sexy books under an assumed name, have at it. I don’t even care anymore.” I swallowed, because that was a huge lie—I did care, and quite a bit. “But please do me a favor and leave me alone for this weekend. I just want to fly under the radar this weekend. This is the first time that I’m meeting other authors in person, and . . . it’s important to me.” I steeled my voice to keep it from trembling. “If I ever meant anything to you, Carter, I’m asking you, just for this weekend, to pretend that we’re strangers. I’m begging you to leave me alone.”
“Of course, you meant something to me, Liesel.” The words were raw, his tone bleak. “Jesus, you were the love of my fucking life. I thought we—I was just about to—” He jerked his head to one side. “Doesn’t matter.” He ran his hand through his short hair. “You have my word. I won’t blow your cover—not this weekend, and not back home, either.” His mouth twisted. “I have a lot on my mind today, anyway. I need to stay focused.”
“Of course.” I mustered a smile. “Good luck tonight. I hope the game goes well.”
“Thanks.” He gave me a brief nod. “See you around, Liesel.” Turning, he stalked back toward the stationary bike.
I stood there a moment longer, wanting to say so much more, dying to wrap my arms around him and hold him tight, needing his touch and tenderness more than I ever could have imagined.
But he didn’t look my way again, and with a silent exhale, I walked out of the gym.
The unexpected question startled me, and I opened my eyes to see a woman regarding me with a tilted head. My first thought was that she was gorgeous. Her long hair was chestnut blonde, and her eyes were huge and brown, surrounded by a fringe of lashes. The flowered dress she wore was short, showing off miles of tanned leg. The neckline wasn’t too low, but the material clung to a pair of tits that made my mouth water.
Her eyes narrowed as she studied me. “Don’t you like weddings?”
“Um . . .” I cleared my throat. “Yeah, they’re okay, I guess. I just needed a little air.” I pushed against the tree to stand up. “Plus, the music was really loud. Also, there was a bridesmaid who was determined to corral me into a dance. So maybe I am hiding.”
“Ah.” She nodded. “I needed a little escape, too. So many people.” She shrugged, and then from behind her back, she produced a bottle of wine. “I just happen to have liberated some provisions when I ran away. If I were willing to share my wine, could I share your hiding spot?” She smiled, and suddenly, my body went onto full alert, every nerve ending singing hallelujah and screaming YES.
“Uh.” I swallowed, cursing my temporary inability to form a coherent word. “Sure. I think we can work out a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
She laughed. “I was hoping you’d say that.” Pulling the cork from the bottle, she took a healthy slug of wine, her lips wrapping around the opening in a way that made my dick go instantly hard.
Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she passed the bottle to me. “Cheers.” One eyebrow quirked upward. “Here’s to new friends.”
I closed my fingers over her smaller ones, not missing how warm they were. “New friends. Yeah, that works.” I gripped the neck and lifted the wine. The glass of the bottle’s mouth tasted like something sweet and slippery even before the liquid slid over my tongue. Her lipstick, I guessed, and somehow, it felt intimate to taste her this way.
“You’re a friend of the groom’s, I’m guessing.” She tucked her hair behind one ear, smiling up at me.
“Guilty. Was it the haircut or the uniform that clued you in?” I brushed a hand over the front of my dress blues.
“Let’s say it was a combo, plus the fact that you were sitting at the head table with the rest of the wedding party. I know groomsmen are sometimes the friends or family of the bride, but in this case, knowing what I do about Sam, I doubted it.”
I frowned. “You saw me at the table?”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course, I did. I also saw the bridesmaid who had herself plastered all over you, and I saw you make your getaway.” She chugged the wine and held it up for me. “That’s when I stole the libations and followed you.”
Her frankness was surprising. I was used to women who played games, who flirted and then pretended to be indifferent or acted surprised when I paid attention to them. This girl was straightforward, and I decided I kind of liked it.
“If I ask you to come sit with me on the grass over there by the wall, will you tell me that you’re afraid of getting grass stains on your dress?” I swirled the wine in the bottle. Yeah, it was sort of a test; if she was too prissy to sit on the ground with me, it said something about her.
She laughed. “Hell, no. I’m not that precious. And my feet are killing me, so sitting down sounds like heaven.”
“Okay, then.” I pushed myself off the tree and offered her my hand. “Let’s go.”
The lights that surrounded the tent area didn’t extend quite this far, and we were both quiet as we watched our steps, careful not to stumble on the uneven ground. Her hand inside mine felt oddly familiar as if my fingers were perfectly suited for closing over hers.
The wall I’d indicated was low, made of large, round field stones. I braced myself on the top of it and lowered my body to the ground. My new friend settled herself next to me, crossing her legs while making sure her dress didn’t reveal too much. I liked that; sure, I enjoyed sneaking a peek at a dip into cleavage or a little glance when the wind lifted skirts, but women who were too eager to show me the goods made me uncomfortable.
Once she was leaning against the stone wall, I offered her the wine again. “Here you go. By the way, if we’re going to share both booze and a hiding place, we should probably introduce ourselves. I’m Owen Hughes.”
She tilted back the bottle and drank deep, running her thumb over her bottom lip afterward to wipe off the wine. “Nice to meet you, Owen. I’m . . . Jacqueline.”
I noticed both the brief hesitation and the fact that she didn’t give me her last name. That wasn’t too surprising; sometimes girls were cautious about giving away too much. I didn’t blame her. It was a dangerous world out there, and with social media, if she offered up her full name, there was nothing to stop me from stalking her online.
So I only nodded. “Nice to meet you, Jacqueline. You already know I’m here for the groom. What about you? Bride or groom?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Well . . . kind of both. I met Max and Sam at the same time through, um, mutual friends. I just moved here from California, and Samantha was nice enough to invite me to come today with my friends.”
“She’s pretty cool.” Settling the bottle on the grass between us, I rested my head against the cold stones and closed my eyes. “What brought you out here from the West Coast? New job?”
“Not really.” I heard something in her tone, a mix of hesitation and uncertainty. “I’m sort of between jobs right now. Between careers, I guess you could say.” She snorted. “I’m twenty-six years old, and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. How pathetic is that?”
“Not at all pathetic.” I opened one eye and turned my head a little so I could see her better. Jacqueline was staring straight ahead into the velvet darkness, her brows drawn together. Before I thought about what I was doing, I reached one finger over to smooth the wrinkles on her forehead. “Hey. Seriously. There’s no rule about having to plan out the rest of your life when you hit a certain age. I think there’s something to be said for taking it slow and seeing what you really enjoy before you commit to something.”
“Maybe,” she sighed. “But it’s not so easy when the rest of your family—and the rest of the world—seems like they have it all together. I feel like the perpetual screw-up, the one who’s always flitting from idea to idea.”
“You’re trying out your wings.” I lifted one shoulder. “That’s what being young is all about.”
“Are you speaking from your vantage point of wise old age?” She nudged me with her elbow. “You hide it well. I wouldn’t have guessed you to be more than . . .” She squinted at me, pretending to think. “Oh, forty or so.”
“Forty, huh?” I chuckled. “Sometimes I feel like it, but no. I just turned thirty-two last week.”
“Hmmm. And just what have you done to try out your wings, Captain Hughes? I’m no mind reader, but I can hazard a guess about you.” She brought her knees together, folding her legs against her stomach, and linked her fingers around her shins. “I bet you were ROTC and went into active duty after you graduated from college. You’ve been Army proud and gung-ho every single day you’ve been serving Uncle Sam, and you never even thought about any other way of life. You plan to stick it out until you hit retirement age, or even longer if your career really takes off.” She side-eyed me. “How close am I?”
“Not that far off,” I admitted, shifting so that I was facing her. “Except I wasn’t ROTC. I went to the Academy. I’m a West Point grad.”
“Really?” Jacqueline cocked her head. “That’s kind of a big deal, isn’t it? A girl who was a year ahead of me in high school got an appointment to West Point. They wrote an article about her in the local paper and everything.”
I shrugged. “I guess.” The truth was that I’d never made a big deal about being a West Pointer. It was something I’d gotten through, but unlike some of my classmates, I didn’t feel that it made me any more special than the other officers who served with me now. “What it means to me is that I graduated without any student debt, I never had more than a few weeks off in the summer during college, and I got this pretty ring.” I lifted my left hand, where the hunk of gold sat. “Other than that—and during football season, when I’m a crazy fan of Army football—I’m no different than any other guy in the service.”
“I don’t know.” She smiled, and her entire face transformed. I caught my breath, utterly captivated. She was beautiful in an almost-otherworldly way, and I was so mesmerized that I nearly forgot to listen to what she was saying. “You seem a little different. You’re not in the middle of the action, getting your dance on with all the eligible women who would love to get their . . . hands on you. You’re not taking advantage of the free liquor and getting wasted, all in the name of having a good time.”
“Maybe that’s because I don’t see the point. Not when the most gorgeous woman at the party brought a bottle of wine over and is sitting here with me in the dark.” Taking a chance that she wouldn’t pull back, I slid my hand into her hair, cupping the back of her head.
I balled up my hands into fists, feeling the muscles of my arms bunch. My eyes were riveted on the faded pink rose woven into the rug on the floor. I wasn’t going to look up and meet the eyes of the chick across from me, the one who looked like she didn’t weigh ninety pounds soaking wet. How anyone could think someone like her could make a difference for someone like me was ludicrous.
“Well.” Her voice was soft, too, like the rest of her, and she spoke in a measured tone, like most fucking doctors did. I was damned sick of them all. “I can’t give you the existentialist answer to that question, but from where I sit, you’re here because you have a group of friends who care about you, maybe more than you deserve, and who don’t want to see you get pushed out of the Army on a medical discharge. Because of that, they’ve taken it upon themselves to make sure you get to these appointments with me.”
“They’re fucking interfering morons. If I want to sit in my house until I die, it’s none of their fucking business. There’s such a thing as freedom, you know.” I flickered my gaze up to her for a nanosecond. “Which means that I’m free to sit here and ignore you until that asshole Kincaid comes back to pick me up.”
“Hey, it also means you’re free to get your ass up out of my office and leave at any time you like.” She leaned down, moving into my line of vision until I didn’t have any choice but to see her. The bright red hair was cut short, and as I watched, she ran her hand through it. “Keep in mind that I’m getting paid whether or not you cooperate. But if you don’t, you’re only hurting yourself.”
My left leg throbbed, and I told myself that was the only reason I didn’t do as she’d suggested and get the hell out of here. Instead, I crossed my arms over my chest and glowered at her.
“Oh, please.” She waved one small hand in the air, laughing. “Do you seriously think you scare me, Captain McTavis? I’ve been stared down by better men than you, I can promise. You don’t frighten me, you don’t intimidate me, and I’m not going to back down from what I said earlier. You need me. If I don’t sign off that you’re showing up for these appointments, your battalion commander is going to start the process for your discharge.”
I dropped my eyes again and set my jaw. “Maybe she should. Maybe Colonel Debbings should have drummed my ass out months ago. I’m only taking up space. I’m not of any use to anyone. It would have been better if I’d died that day in Kentucky. Would have saved everyone a shit load of trouble.”
She was quiet for a few minutes, so much so that I finally looked up again, just to see if she’d fallen asleep or slipped out or gone comatose. But she was still there, those enormous green eyes staring at me, her rosebud lips pursed.
“Is this where I’m supposed to feel sorry for you or something? Because I’m not. Whether you want to know it or not, Captain McTavis, you’re a damn lucky guy. You’ve got a successful career, friends who care about you, and a body that can recover if you let it happen. And what’s more, you’ve been given a second chance. Do you know how rare that is? Do you know how often it doesn’t happen? But you got it. You can heal and grow strong again. You can reclaim your job and your relationships.”
She stood up suddenly, startling me with the rapid movement, and walked over to stand next to my chair, pointing at me with one small finger.
“But you have to choose to take that second chance. You have to decide to do the work and make it happen. Your friends can drive you here, they can cheer you on, but they can’t do it for you. I’m here to help you get your body back, to be able to go on with less pain—but I can’t do it for you, either.
“Harper, can I ask you something?” I was pulling on my pants, as she lay unmoving on the bed behind me.
“You just made me come so hard, I think I saw the sun explode. You can ask me for anything right now.”
I grinned. It was always good to hear I’d satisfied her as much as she rocked my world. “At the risk of being thrown out again . . . but now that we know each other a little better . . . you don’t really think that you’re less talented than your brother and sister, do you?”
She rolled over, and I saw the flash of hurt on her face. But she didn’t yell, and she didn’t get mad.
“I know that I’m excellent in my field. I know that I was meant to be a chef, and I don’t have any doubts about being where I am.” She paused. “But I’m also smart enough and aware enough to know that my parents see it differently. They see Jordan and Lila’s work as permanent and lasting. Mine is fleeting and temporary. Plus, they think I’m destined to be the help at their friends’ parties, even though I’ve never worked catering a day in my life.”
“That sucks.” I leaned against the bed and stroked her hair, winding a strand around my finger. “But what they say and think isn’t valid or true. I think you’re fucking amazing, and so talented . . . you’re a star, sugar. Don’t let them take that away from you.”
She stared up at me, blinking. “Thank you.”
I dropped a quick kiss on her nose. “No thanks necessary for the truth. And this is not at all related to what I just said. But do you know how to make chocolate syrup? Like the real kind, from scratch?”
She wrinkled her forehead, looking up at me curiously. “Yeah, of course I do. Why do you ask?”
I waggled my eyebrows at her. “I was thinking that it might be a fun addition to our kitchen repertoire. You know . . .” I trailed a finger down her chest and pinched one stiff nipple. “I could draw on you with it and then lick it off, a little at a time.” I leaned down and whispered into her ear. “Now that, baby, is artistry.”
She began laughing, but at the same time, she wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me hard, upside down.
“Jake Robinson, you’re crazy. But you’re my kind of crazy.”
I dug into my purse to find my car keys, biting the corner of my lip as I felt around for them, making a mental note to clean out the dang handbag when I got home. Walking as I searched, I nearly ran into the bumper of a black Jeep parked two spots over from my own sensible sedan.
“Whoa there.” A warm and vaguely familiar voice startled me. “You better watch where you’re going, or you could end up roadkill.”
Frowning, I squinted at the tall figure leaning against the Jeep, although I was beginning to have a sneaking suspicion about who it was. Regulation Army fatigues stretched over broad shoulders? Check. Short black hair? Check. Piercing blue eyes? Hmmm. Impossible to see behind the tinted sunglasses, but I was going to assume they were there. Impossible smirk on those full lips? Oh, yeah, check.
The little spring of happy that had been bubbling up in me suddenly went dry.
“What are you doing here?” I hadn’t meant to sound quite so hostile and accusatory, but there it was. “Please don’t tell me you were waiting for me. This is bordering on stalker status now.”
Shaw Kincaid slid his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose a little way, just far enough for me to be able to see his quirked eyebrow.
“Feeling a little self-important, are we, Delia? Did you ever think there might be another reason I’d be out here?”
I put my hand on my hip. “Oh, really? And just what would that be? Were you called here on a special mission?”
He resumed his position against the vehicle, crossing his arms over his chest . . . which, holy God, was probably a work of art, judging by how it appeared even under the loose BDUs. I pulled my gaze away with no small amount of difficulty.
“It just so happens that yes, I was called here on a special mission. Sandra has a parent-teacher conference this afternoon, and her car wouldn’t start. I happened to be available to give her a lift because I’m a good friend and all around terrific guy.I’m waiting here to see if she needs a ride home.” As if on cue, his phone chimed, and Shaw leaned forward a bit, reaching into his back pocket to retrieve it. He scanned the screen. “Which she doesn’t, as apparently one of the other moms from post is here and offered to drive her back.” He slid the cell phone back into his pants, and I tried hard not to ogle the curve of his ass as the cloth was pulled tight over it.
“Oh.” I felt horribly small all of a sudden. When had I started being so full of myself that I’d assume a guy who just happened to be in my school’s parking lot was actually here to see me? Before Dane and I had begun dating back in high school, I’d been terribly shy, riddled with self-doubt. It had taken years of his love and constant assurance of my worthiness before I’d started to bloom. Apparently now I’d gone the other way.
“I’m sorry,” I managed to squeak out. “I shouldn’t have . . . it’s just that you texted yesterday, and I figured maybe you hadn’t taken no for my answer.” I cleared my throat. “Anyway, again, my apologies, and if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to drive home and pretend the last five minutes didn’t happen.”
“Wait a second there.” Shaw stood up and closed his hand around my arm before I could walk away. “I said I hadn’t come to see you particularly, but don’t you think it’s a funny coincidence that we happened to bump into each other?”
“Coincidence? Maybe. Funny? Not so much.” I tried to move away from him without making a big deal about it, but Shaw’s fingers were secure on me—not squeezing or hurting anything, just . . . there. Five bands of steel ensuring I didn’t get away.
He grinned, and I was pretty sure all my nether regions went to mush. Damn. What was it with this guy? If I had a button, he definitely knew how to push it.
As if he knew what I was feeling, his eyes swept down over my body, lingering on my boobs long enough to admire them without it getting super creepy. When his gaze wandered lower, it was as though I felt the heat of his stare spreading through my veins.
“I think it’s kismet,” he murmured. “And I think it also means we should go . . . uh, get a cup of coffee. What do you say?”
I sighed, wishing I could tell him yes. I wished like hell that he was an ordinary guy, someone with a nine-to-five desk job, where the biggest risk he faced was a paper cut. I wished that the hot body standing in front of me was dressed in anything but a military uniform. As tempting as he was . . . and as much as I wanted to give him a chance, I couldn’t risk my heart on another man who lived for danger.
“I can’t.” I kept my voice soft but definite. “What I said before still stands.” I smiled at Shaw, just to show that I didn’t have any hard feelings. “Actually, even if you weren’t in the Army and thus off-limits to me, I’d have to take a rain check. I have to do something this afternoon that I’ve been putting off way too long.”
His eyes narrowed a little, and then he pushed his glasses back into place. “Oh, yeah? What’s that?” He’d dropped his fingers from my arm, and now he stepped away slightly. “Is it, uh, a lady thing?”
I laughed. “If I said yes, you’d be out of here so fast, I’d be eating your dust, wouldn’t I?” Men were men, no matter how big and hunky they were.
“Hmph.” Shaw folded his arms again. “No. I can deal.” Still, his lips twitched, and if I were really thinking about pursuing this guy, I’d have totally called him on it.
As it was, I let him off the hook. “No, it’s not anything like that. I have to start training for a half marathon.”
He cocked his head. “Uh, okay? Are you a runner?”
“No. I mean, I never have been. It’s sort of a long story.”
When Shaw made a rolling motion with his hand, I sighed and went on. “Last fall, one of the other teachers was recruiting people for a team to run this race for charity. She was all excited about the money we could raise for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and I don’t know what got into me, but somehow, I thought it sounded like a good idea for me to do it. It seemed so far away back then. And I kept thinking . . . well, I’ll start training for it soon. And then it was the holidays, and then it was too cold to think about being outside.”
“Ah. Uh-huh. What about going to the gym and running on the treadmill?” Shaw shifted his weight to the other foot.
I wrinkled my nose and stuck out my tongue. “I don’t belong to a gym and yuck. Gyms are smelly and gross.”
“Have you ever been inside a gym?” Shaw inquired. “Or are you making this judgment call based on old television shows and boxer movies?”
“I don’t need to go inside. I can just tell.Anyway, you’re missing the point, and I’m burning daylight. I need to go. If I don’t start today, I never will, and I’ll be the loser—literally—at the end of the pack, and everyone will be standing there giving me pity claps.” I’d had actual nightmares about being the last runner across the finish line, the one everyone felt sorry for as they waited for me to finally be done.
“Okay.” Shaw pushed himself off the side of the Jeep. “When is this race?”
I swallowed hard. I’d been hoping he wouldn’t ask that. “Six weeks,” I mumbled.
He leaned down closer to me. “What’s that? I thought you said six weeks.”
“I did.” I gnawed my lip again.
“And you haven’t run at all? You’ve never done a race before? Not even, like, a 5K or anything?”
“I used to do the track thing during PE at school. You know, where they make you run and the gym teacher times you with a stopwatch. But otherwise? No. I’m not really an athlete. I’m more of a sit and watch the athletes.”
“All right.” Shaw rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, it’s not going to be easy, but if you’re committed and stay focused, I think we can do it. I’m not going to promise that you’ll set any records, but you’ll finish.”
“Wait . . . what?” I stared up at him. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m saying that I’m going to help you train for this.”